California draft budget backslides into aggressive prison construction, punting durable population reduction

by Christina Tsao, Californians United for a Responsible Budget

Sacramento – The May Revision to Governor Brown’s 2015-16 budget, released this morning, delays plans to close the notorious decaying prison in Norco, a move supported by Sen. Hancock and CURB members earlier this week. The corrections budget continues to account for a total of $12.676 billion with plans for “aggressive” prison construction at Donovan and Mule Creek over the next year.

Looking from the outside like the lakeside resort it was built to be in 1928, Norco became a naval hospital during World War II and later a prison. But appearances can be deceiving. Sen. Loni Hancock calls it dilapidated, infested with vermin and expensive to operate. Norco currently houses 2,400 inmates in unsafe conditions that include standing pools of water, rodents and cockroaches, and water that does not come out of the pipes at temperatures deemed safe for food preparation.
Looking from the outside like the lakeside resort it was built to be in 1928, Norco became a naval hospital during World War II and later a prison. But appearances can be deceiving. Sen. Loni Hancock calls it dilapidated, infested with vermin and expensive to operate. Norco currently houses 2,400 inmates in unsafe conditions that include standing pools of water, rodents and cockroaches, and water that does not come out of the pipes at temperatures deemed safe for food preparation.

“We know the only permanent solution for the decaying California Rehabilitation Center in Norco is to bulldoze it immediately,” explained Deb Reyes of California Prison Moratorium Project. Today’s revised budget pushes off any plans to address Sen. Hancock’s demand to close Norco until the release of next year’s 2016-17 budget.

“Why are we waiting?” Reyes asks. “People who are suffering in California’s crowded and decaying prisons need the legislature to take action immediately to implement common sense parole and sentencing reforms to keep California below the court ordered population cap.”

Today’s May Revise promises to bring 4,000 people from out of state contract beds back to California, while simultaneously suggesting a commitment for “aggressive construction” of new prison beds. “Building more beds and continuing to shuffle people around the country isn’t the type of ‘permanent solution’ to prison overcrowding that California voters want,” says Emily Harris, state field director for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

“The budget did not anticipate reductions from reforms like Prop 47 or expanding parole, signaling that the governor is not taking these reforms seriously but only reacting to population reduction and not actively pursuing it.” The passage of Prop 47 has been hailed as a voter mandate for California to continue to reduce its reliance on locking people up.

Advocates have called for correction budget funds to be redirected from proposed prison expansion into the implementation and expansion of court ordered measures to reduce the number of people locked up in California. Current legislation from Sen. Liu and Assemblymember Stone would expand these court order measures and continue the need to expand corrections capacity.

“Why are we waiting?” Reyes asks. “People who are suffering in California’s crowded and decaying prisons need the legislature to take action immediately to implement common sense parole and sentencing reforms to keep California below the court ordered population cap.”

The Governor’s May Budget Revise suggests a decrease in prison population by 1.1 percent in 2014‐15 and decrease by 3.8 percent in 2015‐16. However, the administration will wait to develop a long term plan that includes court ordered measures until the 2016‐17 Governor’s Budget.

“This revision shows a lack of commitment to a realistic plan to get out of the court order. All I see is lots of expensive construction,” said Diana Zuñiga, statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget. “Instead of focusing on keeping an aging prison open, our efforts should be on continuing with parole and sentencing reform that is decreasing the population.

“This revision is a disgrace in that it leaves programs like elder parole, credit expansion and the alternative custody program out of the equation when we know that is the only way we will get out of the court order by February 2016. How can you create a long term plan a month before that deadline?”

Christina Tsao is interim media assistant at Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB). She can be reached at Christina@curbprisonspending.org.